Archive for the ‘erik rader’ Category

Diary of a Fading Rockstar, Part VII

November 3, 2009

When Did The Midnight-To-Six Become Six-To-Midnight? Or: How The Real World Ruined My Breakfast

Written By Erik Rader

There’s a cliche I think we’re all familiar with that a rockstar’s alarm clock is usually set for noon, but he/she tends to like sleeping in a little past that. I think the whole concept of brunch was invented by a rockstar, or whoever provided that person with food. Since I generally provide my own food, my stomach is more or less my alarm clock these days, beyond the predictable mayhem caused by various small two and four-legged mammals parading about the house.

When we went out and got day jobs (or went back out and got back our day jobs, or whatever order it came in for you) we pretty much had to let go of the rockstar brunch. Maybe it really was a luxury. But in all truthfulness we had a full-time job with weird hours – all day most weekdays for songwriting, arranging, rehearsing, interviews, photo shoots, driving to the next gig, and night shift on the weekends – the gigs themselves, and all that low-rent spec time between paying customers at the big shot recording studio. Plus the fact that we were always expected to take our work home with us. And that’s just the work – there’s all the socializing you’re asked to do on top of that. Let’s see you get up bright and early after a night tossing back brandies at an awards ceremony. Unless there are hairs of the proverbial canine involved, it’s just not a reasonable expectation.

These days I do well with a structured work schedule – I usually get to work early and leave late; sometimes I even get asked to please stick to my scheduled hours. To get out on time, I’ve established a routine whereby I start a series of specific tasks around 5:00 PM, cycling through different areas of my responsibility each hour. It may sound anal, but it helps me not miss details. I’m not really a detail-oriented person, as the friendly credit card company representative reminded me over the phone today.

On unstructured time (you normal people call them “days off” I guess) there was always other activities you could do that were more or less set by the culture. If you weren’t writing, rehearsing, recording or playing a gig, you were supposed to be buying and listening to records, seeing somebody else’s band play, doing “research” on some sort of mind-altering substance, or showing up at some protest rally or other. Oh, and then there’s putting in the necessary “girlfriend time”, which in their minds was usually about 37 hours a day. This involved going to their parents’ house to eat meals in stony silence, or paying nail-biting visits to a doctor’s office to make sure the home pregnancy test was a false alarm, or listening to them talk about what a bitch their best friend is. There were nights when you’d feel torn three ways – having your parental landlords expecting you to be at home in bed before dawn, while having your girlfriend expecting you at her place even sooner, and your band mates expecting you to sleep it off on the rehearsal space carpet with them. It’s no wonder that many musicians burn out from taking too many stimulants and avoiding sleep altogether.

Actual “free time” is hard to find for anyone, especially if like me you have a propensity for making promises. Finding that zone in which one has no responsibilities to anyone or anything, where nothing is due, or overdue, actually requires a focus of mind and effort that takes years to develop. Avoiding responsibility is hard work; most of us fall into responsibility without looking for it or choosing it.

When you are the lead singer of a rock and roll band, this is actually your most important job, second only to actually singing in a rock and roll band. Everybody has something to do at soundcheck except you; and in the studio, you are always the last person to be recorded. You’re expected to stand there and look cool, but not too distracting, during the solos; and interviewers are always more interested in what the guitar player has to say, because they think you’re an idiot. Many people project onto you what has been termed “the soft bigotry of low expectations” – in other words, the popular perception of you is being about as connected to the daily realities of life as a spoiled housecat.

But you’re the focal point for the audience. Like Jesus Christ, no one may enter the Kingdom of Heaven except through you. You are the doorman at the Gates of Delirium. You are the tribal shaman, your community’s channel for mystical forces. You are expected to be toothless, insane, and needing to be fed. If you exceed these expectations, you are liable to have someone come up to you and say “Excuse me – are you the manager?” (This in and of itself is not so bad, as there is actually a narrow chance that somebody might unintentionally give you the money.)

It’s hard work playing an instrument, and no mistake. You have to stay in your room and play scales all day while other kids are playing stickball, going out on dates or getting high. You have to sit around sucking on a reed, or checking your pockets for guitar picks, or super-gluing your calluses. It’s especially hard being a drummer because you have to drive everybody around in the vehicle you bought to drive your gear around. Then the lead singer sits on your pedal by accident and breaks the strap, and you have to borrow a pedal from that asshole in the opening band. If you’re the bass player it’s even worse, because you have to pick up the guitar player at his girlfriend’s house, and he’s always late because, well, you know, and plus you have the most cripplingly heavy and unwieldy piece of equipment in the band: The Dreaded Bass Cabinet. Consequently, it is also the most dropped piece of equipment in the band. So is it any wonder that 2/3rds of all technical difficulties on stage are bass-related? But I digress.

It’s hardest of all being the lead singer, because your instrument is your body. You can set fire to your guitar or put explosive charges in your snare drum, but if you do either of those to yourself you’re liable to get killed, or wish you had. If a roadie drops a box of drum hardware, the most likely thing to get damaged is his foot; if he drops you, you’re the one who’s damaged (not even mentioning the fact that you were pretty damaged in the first place, which is why he’s carrying you). Band members can hang around backstage playing with their instruments; the singer can only play with him/herself. Vocal chords are dreadfully susceptible to extremes of temperature, atmospheric contaminants, or bad vibes. You can play guitar when you’re in a bad mood, but when you’re the singer the bad mood affects your instrument directly.

Another thing that sucks about being in a group of instrumental musicians is that they don’t think you play an instrument. You’re as functional as a coat rack in their eyes. They’ll stand there at parties blandly telling you that you should “take up an instrument”, as if using your own body as an instrument onstage is somehow lazy. You’re the lowest priority in the house mix, the monitor mix, even the studio mix. Every show for your first few years on the road will culminate in at least three people saying “You looked great, I wish I could hear you!” or “I wish I could tell what you were singing. Was your microphone even on?” It doesn’t matter how much presence you get in your mix during sound check; fill the house with people, and fill the sound man with cocaine, pot, PCP and Bushmill’s, and all of a sudden the lead guitar is louder than the thoughts inside your own head, followed close second by the drums and bass, and maybe the trombone after that. The trombone player is your hero, because he will never under any circumstances NOT be heard, not if they cut his mike, not if they stick a sock in his trombone, not even if they shoot him and bury him six feet under the stage. If they do that, a flaming trombone from hell will play Dixieland jazz straight up their asses. I think the trombone is an outstanding and often unsung instrument in the rock and roll pantheon. People latch onto the sax because it’s got a certain amount of built-in attitude in its sound, but the trombone wins because there’s no subtlety or pretension about it. Trombone is raw moonshine to the sax’s fancy wine. Trombone steps past the sharpshooter precision of the sax and pulls out a sawed-off shotgun.

I learned some things about being a rockstar from the trombone player. He never, ever, ever took himself seriously onstage or off; when he acted like he did, he was fucking with you. The trombone player made no enemies, was threatened by no one, and was ready with a smile in almost every situation. The trombone player was all about confidence, easiness and humor. If anything the trombone player said or did pissed you off, you knew you were probably being an asshole and should get off your high horse. The trombone player never sulked; it was almost impossible to hurt his feelings, and heaven knows I tried. The trombone player was the first to laugh if a practical joke was played on him; but his revenge was always swift and merciless, and the rest of the horn section were always there to back him up. The trombone player never gave a shit about what anyone else thought; he was only in it for his own entertainment, every minute he was in it. When he was done, he went to college and got himself a real job. He’ll probably be the one who pays for the lead singer’s funeral.

But more importantly, no one ever questioned whether the trombone player was “living in the real world” or not. (Okay, there was that time during his freshman year in college, but everyone’s freshman year is like that.) The trombone player, today, is as much a representative of “the real world” as anyone the lead singer has ever known. And yet he is still, and will always be, the trombone player. His spirit comes and goes across the face of creation with that sound forever following in his wake.

The trombone player represents something pure and eternal about the whole rockstar trip. Something that perhaps used that trip as a springboard to transcend all the shallowness and waste. The trombone player doesn’t have any regrets. The trombone player presents a lesson for us all: Play loud. Be heard. Wear whatever you want. Don’t be afraid to look ridiculous. And don’t bother having enemies – it’s just not worth the effort.

The trombone player understands brunch – that it’s a necessity, and not a luxury, of life.

Read the other part of the series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

DIARY OF A FADING ROCKSTAR PART VI

October 8, 2009

Long Gone Lonesome Blues

Written By: Erik Rader

“Sometimes, you don’t know what you have until you walk away from it.”
____________________

The number of projects – musical, literary or otherwise – that I’ve embarked upon with an initial burst of intense energy, which have subsequently flopped, fizzled, faded, been f***ed up or fumbled, is rather large. I would say that the number of bands I’ve tried to start is only matched by the number of jobs I’ve had or careers I’ve tried to launch and the number of novels I’ve never finished (I could probably fill a library with those). Usually these projects are preceded by periods of deep depression and malaise, followed by a sudden plunge into a pit of despair and anxiety – just as suddenly followed by a soaring feeling of elation, an explosion of fully-formed complex ideas and concepts for new work, and even concrete beginnings. Rather than actually end, these bursts of energy have arcs that peak and then plummet with a noticeable rhythm. Goethe adjured us to just begin, and claimed that magic would ensue. I’ve had lots of magical beginnings. My problem is finishing. Maybe it’s a fear of endings as a metaphor for death, who knows. To the artist, nothing is ever really finished, at least not satisfactorily – rather, the process is interrupted by choice. So how do we choose when to fade out?

My friends with a mental health background will point out this emotional see-saw has a resemblance to bipolar manic depression, but every professional psychiatric screen I’ve been given over the years points to major depression instead, which is not as sexy a disorder, is somewhat rarer and less understood. Basically, the kind of depression I am under treatment for is the kind you have your whole life and just find ways to work around. I honestly am not aware of having delusions of grandeur, other than the one I had as a teenager that I was going to be the next Bono or Peter Gabriel and that soon hundreds of thousands would look upon me as a channel to the Next Higher Level of Consciousness or whatever.

Okay, that was pretty f***in’ grandiose! But it was just a feeling. I didn’t believe any untrue facts, such as believing that Michael Stipe and I were long lost brothers or that Natalie Merchant lived in my basement or that the ghost of Jimi Hendrix was teaching me how to play guitar. I didn’t change my name to Stingo or Jalapeno or Rapier or Space Robot 666. I didn’t buy an expensive motorcycle and drive it off a cliff. I didn’t get my picture in the paper frolicking with drag queens. I just tried to do my job as best I could – my job being to remain inspired, keep up my chops, and stay focused. When those things more or less stopped happening, I made an executive decision – and probably my first adult one – to pack up, leave town, and try to achieve those things again somewhere else. I’m told that alcoholics in recovery refer to this as “pulling a geographic”, and it is usually seen as a way of avoiding the problem.

I broke up with a fantastic girlfriend who really dug me, dumped my best friend on a Post-It, got rid of almost everything I owned (which wasn’t much), and rode off into the sunset on the Green Tortoise hippie bus. My plan was to head on up to my favorite aunt and uncle’s farm in southwestern Washington, where they offered to have me stay with them a few weeks to detox from my crazy social life back home and come up with a plan for my next move. During my stay, I took long walks on roads miles from any lamp post, under a clear sky crowded with stars the likes of which it is impossible to see with today’s air pollution and light pollution. It was a little bit like floating in a sensory deprivation tank or doing a spacewalk, with my cassette Walkman playing Incredible String Band, Van Morrison, Yes, Television, Ralph Vaughn-Williams, R.E.M., Lightnin’ Hopkins, Tom Waits and Hank Williams. Needless to say I tripped hard on those walks. I got so far out of my head I actually thought the lyrics in all the songs were secret coded messages intended especially for me. After about a month of this I decided I had spent enough time in my hermitage and was ready to rejoin the human race, if they’d have me. I rode Amtrak across the midwest and down the Mississippi.

In New Orleans, I didn’t get a damn thing done except drink, eat, work as a bus boy, watch the cockroaches and rats rule their kingdoms, and sit at the feet of people who fancied themselves the next William Faulkner or Brian Eno. I did managed to throw up on some of their living room floors. That was fun. When the winter holiday season came around, and the canned music at the restaurant started to include Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here”, I got nostalgic for a place that might be more…christmasy. I thought about it in that non-factual, illogical, emotionally-driven way that sensitive poet types in their early 20’s are given to. I thought about the part of the country where I was born – New England – and the fact that I hadn’t been back since being born there, and maybe it was time to check in. See some snow, smell scented candles in the stores, drink some hot cider and sing carols.

I don’t know why it seemed as if New England would be more ‘Christmasy’ than the South, but as I said I wasn’t applying logic to the equation. All I knew was, I had a nice pawnshop Gibson acoustic with a narrow electric-style neck but nobody to play with. I got on Amtrak and headed East. My first stop was Boston, the place where I was conceived.

The Winter of 1986 was one of the coldest on record up until that point. I kept hearing about homeless people freezing to death in doorways, and was glad that the guy in charge of the International Youth Hostel was breaking the rules by letting me and a few other guys stay there longer than three days in exchange for janitorial labor. During the day I would busk down on the MBTA underground platform playing a couple of psychedelic pop songs I’d written that had no more than 3 chords, sometimes just 3 augmentations of the same chord; and whatever song I remembered at least half the words to that I could actually play, like “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young.

Because I was a Berkeley High School alumnus, I naturally had several classmates of the brainiac variety who’d been admitted to various ivy league universities in the area. I slept on some of their couches for a few weeks for as long as I could push my luck before wearing out my welcome. I briefly worked at a delicatessen not far from the State House, but couldn’t quite hack the abrasive personalities of my middle-aged, thickly accented co-workers. Finally I got a job as a temp with Kelly Services, working as an office assistant for a well-known and respected public figure who happened to be an administrator at Boston University. I was a stand-in for the Admin Assistant who had slipped on an icy driveway and broken her leg. I wrote a lot of letters to friends and slept next to the phone for most of that job. When the AA came back, I got moved to another placement at Northeastern University as the supply cabinet guy for the English Department. By this point I’d got an apartment with some MIT geeks in Somerville, and was actually saving some money.

Around about this time I met some guys who answered an ad I had put up in a guitar shop. I basically wrote down all the punk, post-punk, prog, avant-garde and assorted other types of bands I was into, and said “I’d like to sing for a band with these same influences.” A couple of guys who were the mid-80’s equivalent of indy rock hipsters – at that time it was pea coats and Doc Martens – answered my ad and invited me over to their rehearsal space. For a lot of the audition we shouted out the names of bands we were into and wrote them down on the white erasable marker board.

Pretty soon there were more than a hundred band names scrawled up there. Then we tried to lurch through “I Found That Essence Rare” by Gang of Four. We had all the cool ideas, all the conceivable “right influences” and more, we had a couple of not so bad looking young dudes, some obvious talent in the room. There was also zero magic. We all felt it, we all knew it, even though we wouldn’t say it out loud. There was an awkward “We’ll call you” moment; the guitar player had some Doc Martens he didn’t want any more, and he gave them to me. So at least I got some boots out of it.

I found out my mom’s cousin lived in a nearby suburb, and I went to visit her family. She had a husband who was a sarcastic and condescending old-school conservative dude who worked as some sort of executive in public transportation (he died of cancer not long ago, so I’ll try not to speak ill of the dead). He had a depressed son who lived in his basement and worked at a chain restaurant. I guess I looked at the son and had a “Holy s**t there but for the grace of God go I” moment. While I was staying with them they also drove me out to the town in which I was born, a small, somewhat remote and economically depressed New England backwater that resembled nothing so much as a setting for an H. P. Lovecraft story about frog-like worshippers of the Great Old Ones performing human sacrifices in the swamp. I decided it was a good thing my parents didn’t stay there.

I had a good job, a place to live, and was saving some money – and I was also drinking alone a lot. As in, drinking a lot, usually alone. For various reasons I won’t go into here, I got it in mind that a change of scenery was called for. So, I pulled another geographic and got back on the train – this time to Providence, to stay with the friend of a friend who was a Brown student. I got a Kelly job there, and kept my head above water, but I got no work done, in terms of The Work. My stay in Providence was even shorter. I moved again, this time to West Philadelphia, where I crashed on the floor of a spare room in a house full of other friends of the same friend, some of whom were musicians. One of the people who hung out a lot at the house had a viola, and liked Metallica. We jammed out on a chord change I was working on, which eventually became the song “Weather.” She was also kind of hot, but as per usual, I did not pursue any assignation with her, as she was available, while the in-my-mind perfect and inaccessible object of my affections was safely not.

I got a chance to see a show in Philly that was one of those shows you remember the rest of your life – Wire, in some club that could accommodate maybe a couple hundred people on the dance floor, shouting out “Map Reference!” and “12XU!” Instead what they got was “The Queen of Ur and the King of Um,” the poor bastards. But the real milestone was not the band, but the fact that my legs suddenly gave out under me and I collapsed. Thinking I was drunk, the bouncers almost ejected me, but I pleaded with them not to, saying I had the flu. They grudgingly allowed me to go to the john to compose myself. It turns out that what was wrong with me was that I had spent innumerable hours in the kitchen of those friends-of-a-friend, sitting in a chair, smoking cadged Merits, alternating between tea and cheap bottles of National Bohemian, and staring off into space. My blood pressure was dangerously low, and I had some sort of sciatica-like situation going on with my back and legs.

Shortly afterwards – possibly even that week, I’m not sure – I found myself sitting in that same kitchen one night in the dark, drinking tea and smoking and listening to “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” from R.E.M.’s second full album ‘Reckoning’. Suddenly I started to bawl like a baby. I can’t explain why the confluence of these factors led to this emotional breakdown, but perhaps you can get a vague sense of it. The next day I called up my parents and begged them for money for a plane ticket back home.

While staying with my parents after my failed attempt at reliving Kerouac’s “On The Road,” I went mildly insane (mildly for me anyway – maybe not for others). I proceeded to look up every female friend who wouldn’t hang up on me when I called, and hit on every one of them. The last one of these attempts got me a date at a pretentious jazz bistro, too much chartreuse (which is the lame-ass’s excuse for absinthe), a drunken kiss goodnight (the closest thing to scoring I’d experienced in over a year), and a staggering walk home listening to Charles Mingus’ “Mingus Ah Um” on my Sony Walkman before being half-brained with baseball bats by young thugs being initiated into a gang. Five stitches and a mild concussion later, I decided to shave my head.

A few days later, walking up Cedar Street in a daze, I was mugged again – this time by my erstwhile band mates. Screeching to a halt and bundling out of their beat-up economy car, they half tackled me on the sidewalk with boyish enthusiasm almost as if the ugly break-up had never happened, and invited me to do a walk-on cameo appearance during one of their encores at their next gig, some time around Halloween. I allowed myself to be sold on the idea, possibly because of the concussion. I played a demo of my new song for them and received a lukewarm response – I’m sure it was nothing personal, just indicative of how far in different directions we’d traveled in such a short period of time. What the hell, I thought – I’d been all around the country, seen and done a fair amount of things, been hit over the head in my own home town – why not let bygones be bygones, get up and do my thing?

I had major second thoughts about it after I’d committed myself. On the blessed day I met my future wife (which is a whole other story unto itself), I mentioned that I was doing the gig, but didn’t give her any details because quite frankly I didn’t want her to see me in that context. When the night of the gig finally arrived, it was really weird, like a surreal dream (and resembling many dreams I had for years afterward). They asked me to get up on stage and sing one of our “hits” from the one record we made. I got up there, the eight piece band with horns sprung into action, and I………forgot the words. The words I had written and sung hundreds of times in front of thousands of people. I winged it as best I could, but it was basically – to put it kindly as possible – a fucking disaster. Later, a review of the show in the local paper raved about how great the band was, and then made a brief throwaway comment in passing about “some guy who looked like Uncle Fester” appearing briefly onstage for no apparent reason. Thus did I cement my legacy for posterity.

After all of my clumsiness with women that year I had decided to swear off relationships forever, and it was exactly then that I fell in love with this wonderful, beautiful girl who would one day consent to marry me. The universe always seems to have other plans that supersede mine. She was so adorable I didn’t want to leave her side for an instant. Of course, me being the person that I was, I therefore logically decided to stick to my plan to leave town as soon as possible with my brother and try to start a new band on the East Coast. I am hoping that an emergent pattern is evident here.

I didn’t get a damn thing done this time either, as far as starting a band is concerned. My brother and I got bogged down in stupid depressing day jobs, and whenever we got together with his guitar and my lyrics, we just sort of sat there staring at each other waiting for something to happen. Now my brother and I really do have musical magic together; as a producer no one has understood my musical ideas better than he does. I can say to him something like “I want this section to have a certain sort of, I don’t know, Pete Townshend meets Roger McGuinn meets George Harrison feel to it, but with a little Pete Shelly meets Neil Young on the distortion,” and he will not only know exactly what I meant, he will get it to sound exactly right. But that winter, it seemed like some sort of pall had settled over us, stifling our Lennon-McCartney vibe. Perhaps it was simply due to the fact that we unconsciously realized what a dumb move we had made going out there.

Something did come of our trip to the East Coast though. I finally finished something, something memorable. I finished drinking. I finished the casually cruel behaviors I indulged in while drunk, the blackouts, the lapses of responsibility (okay, maybe not, but two out of three ain’t bad). I also finally wrote some lyrics to that song I had started in Philadelphia. It was a love song about only realizing someone was your home after you had left. As I mentioned in the last chapter, it was a little oblique and took some explaining. But it was a finished piece of work – my first that year. Having got those two little details out of the way, we decided we were finished with the East Coast. It was time to go home.

View Erik’s Past Articles:
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

DIARY OF A FADING ROCKSTAR PART V: Teenage vs. Middle-Aged Love Stories

September 18, 2009

Written By: Erik Rader

Last week, after more than a quarter century of songwriting, I managed somehow to write a love song. Not a tortured angst-ridden love-in-flames song, not a “Love is a dodgy premise at best if not impossible” song, not a “Why won’t you love me?” song, not a “Why don’t you love me anymore?” song, and not an “OMG WE’RE DOOOMED” song – just a love song, no more, no less. Okay, it’s got maybe a tablespoon of broken glass in it, but rather than shame and misery and self-hatred and bitterness and resentment and whatever else you might imagine, it’s just that little bit of ouch that – guess what? – any of us who have actually really loved somebody already knows all too well. That “real life” stuff. In a rock song, can you believe it??!

My songwriting comes out of an education in the blues, soul, Italian classical music, punk rock, post-punk, dub reggae, metal, grunge, goth, country death, and so on – so I can, and have, written a fair number of tortured angst-ridden love-in-flames type songs, steeped in vitriol and 180 proof disappointment. The first song I ever wrote, words and music, came about this way:

I am invited to a party at the house of my “in” with the punk rock scene, a tough punk rock chick, who happens to think mods are cool. There’s lots of different kinds of kids there of course – most of them too young to know what clique or gang they’re going to end up in. The mix is diverse mainly because of the absence of adults and the promise of beer.

My friend introduces me to a young lady with long brown hair and penetrating eyes, with whom I experience the template of many “dates” or similar interactions with women to come – me jabbering on and on like an idiot, them looking at me with a look of silent amusement. I don’t know what it is I find so compelling about this girl – maybe just that she’s a girl, and she’s at least pretending to listen to me. Underneath the gear I’m still the great big dork writing science fiction novels, imagining himself to be James Bond.

So we work our way through a can of beer together, and maybe it’s more like two or three, I can’t remember very well – for obvious reasons – and then, predictably, I am trying to kiss her, and it is fairly obvious to both of us that I have no idea what I am doing. Maybe she doesn’t either, but then girls don’t have to. I mean come on – they’re girls, they can get away with just being girls, that’s all the magic required. I, on the other hand, am so hopeless I can even screw up something as down-to-earth as kissing a pretty girl.

Just then, up walks a guy who seems as if he’s three feet taller than me, with blond hair and insouciantly handsome looks; a tough bad boy-type who is probably the one that always knows where the good weed is, who’s had twice as much beer as me, and walks as if he’s had half as much, who actually says this: “Here, let me show you how it’s done.” He takes the girl by the hand, curls her in towards him like they’re dancing at a sock hop, and plants one on her like Humphrey Bogart. She appears to melt into him with relief, as if thinking “Thank God someone who knows what they’re doing intervened!” – she’s actually enjoying kissing this guy.

I think it’s possibly one of the top five, maybe even top three most humiliating moments of my entire life. When the friend who brought me on the back of his scooter finally drives off with my dead weight hanging precariously off the back end, I wave blearily to her and cry out like a mournful loon drifting over a desolate lake: “Call me some time!”

Over the next couple of days, I phone her over and over again, trying to find some kind of spark of interest in her voice. Finally, despairing of my not giving it a rest, she doesn’t even hang up, just puts the phone down and waits for me to realize it’s hopeless.

Since there is nothing else constructive to do at this point, I find myself writing a song – my first song, at least in terms of having music and lyrics and not just being a clever sounding song title on an album cover of an imaginary band (a pastime that, I will one day be astonished to learn, I seem to share with Robert Pollard.

It took me about fifteen years to actually sit down with a friend’s reel-to-reel 4 track and commit it to tape, but here it is. And to the girl, who is now a lady and in fact is now a friend of mine on Facebook, I can only say thank you for providing me with more inspiration than I was likely able to provide you. [I can in no way take credit for her cutting her hair short and forming a band with her friends shortly afterwards.]

Later songs of mine would deal with the predictable punk rock issues of war, terrorism, revolution, pollution, racism, sexism, shoplifting, running from cops, suicide, etc. But the subject of mere love as a songwriting topic was elusive at best, a nightmare at worst. The closest I was able to come to writing something resembling a love song is a harrowing depiction of a shotgun wedding over a blistering 12-bar R & B riff that the lead guitar player brought to rehearsal one afternoon – among other things, it contains the dubious and reprehensible admission on the part of the protagonist that his primary motive is “an ambition to get your daughter in the sack”. You can see a performance of this song here.

Our contempt for the typical love song reflected our contempt for the typical anything. Our soundtrack was “Hate and War” (as opposed to Peace and Love) by the Clash; “(Love Will Get You Like A Case of) Anthrax” by Gang of Four; “Stupid Marriage” by the Specials; and “Into You Like A Train” by the Psychedelic Furs, which featured the raggedly charismatic Richard Butler yowling “No kind of love”. One of our songs even contained the lyric “Touch the issue, hands get dirty/Play love songs until you’re thirty”, and as every rebellious youth knows, one should never trust anyone over thirty (Paul Weller claimed once not to trust anyone over 25). It’s probably the reason why, at 43, I frequently have trouble trusting even myself.

People think that being in a band is a ticket to Chick City (or Dude City if that’s what you prefer). Some people even manage to work that angle for themselves. It’s a lot like going out and getting a dog, hoping that it’s a chick magnet. But then you bring the dog home with you at the end of the day, and it looks up at you as if to say “What’s for dinner?” Now you’ve got something that needs taking care of, that actually requires effort. Seeing as how the only reason we wanted to form a band was because we really wanted to form a band, we didn’t mind the effort so much. But it’s hard work coming up with things to write about if your intention is to always break new ground, to avoid treading familiar pathways. If we’d opened up to writing actual love songs, maybe we would have had a larger palette to work with. After all, the driving forces for our creativity were rage, adversity, angst, anxiety and suffering; and if you can’t find at least two of those elements in any relationship, it’s probably not a relationship worth remembering.

Some time after leaving the band I wrote a love song of sorts that was so vague and poetic I had to carefully explain all the references in detail to the person it was about (the woman who would one day become my wife). I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I believe it was to ask what the point of a love song was if the person it was written to couldn’t even recognize it as such. There you have it in a nutshell – what it’s like being married to a poet.

When I went through my period of de-emphasizing music in favor of developing my craft as a poet, I wrote a lot of surreal, purposefully obtuse poems. I rebelled against the idea of poems or songs being “about” something obvious. A lot of my poems, when read aloud, got laughs or cheers for some of the images, but the overall response was one of puzzlement. Then, I read a poem that was essentially about missing someone and hoping they come back; it brought down the house. I resisted the lesson, though, and went back to my paeans to plastic garbage bags stuck in trees and things of that nature.

Lather, rinse, repeat for about fifteen more years.

I can’t really explain in a dramatic or even interesting way how I finally came around to working out a love song, a way that ties the whole story together and makes a complete and intelligible (much less interesting) narrative. As I may have mentioned before, I started taking responsibility for my own health to a degree I never had before, and this included (perhaps above all else) my mental health; and I stopped trying to exorcise demons of the past, and instead tried to domesticate or at least taxidermy them. One of the things that this helped me do was to pick up where I had left off developing as a songwriter. Instead of trying really hard to say something relevant and original, I just tried to speak from the heart without too much forethought. I tried to be honest, to tell the truth, admit my mistakes without self-pity, and through it all stay optimistic and keep my sense of humor. What I ended up with remained true to some of the dark, ironic essence of my past writing (the song does include references to human sacrifice, gambling, alienation, and the all-time favorite, disappointment). It also had major chords, sweet harmonies, and the word “Love” in it.
Here’s the song:

Madly (Sha La Lo) © 2009 by Erik Rader, all rights reserved.

Diary of a Fading Rockstar, Part IV: Jimmy Is A Punk Rocker

August 26, 2009

Written By: Erik Rader

When I was a child (and already formulating my career plans as a future rockstar) I enjoyed my Sunday clothes so much I wanted to wear them all week. Regardless of the unpleasant actuality of the little old church ladies pinching my cheeks while criticizing the length of my hair, it was the source of my very earliest frisson of cool. It had already been made clear to me that rockstars dressed differently than most people – Rick Wakeman of Yes had his sparkling metallic cape; Kiss had their giant boots and Kabuki makeup; Jimi Hendrix looked like a gypsy from another planet; the Stones looked like barbarian princes come to burn the village to the ground; even the inoffensive, loved-by-parents Beatles had the hirsute earth-toned appearance of poets or highwaymen.

None of these fanciful costumes struck me as being a natural fit with my personality; I never wished I could wear my Halloween werewolf costume the rest of the year. My Sunday clothes, however, felt magical and powerful – it was like being a secret agent or spy, my second choice for a career after rockstar.

If I had shown up to school in a tie and blazer, however, I probably would have gotten my ass kicked. I came from a working class neighborhood in Southeast Portland and attended a school with a huge brick smokestack, the kind that looked like a factory; certainly this was no accident, as I suspect that this was the intended destination they were preparing us for. It was bad enough that my liberal intellectual parents allowed me to attend 3rd grade in long hair and paisley blouses, alongside the kids in their crew cuts, T-shirts and stiff Levis; I think they would have let me show up for school in my Sunday clothes and be crucified.

Fortunately for me, we moved to Berkeley just as I was entering fourth grade, and as we all know schoolchildren in Berkeley in the 70’s would have routinely been sent to the principal’s office for looking normal. Unfortunately, we also entered a state of poverty that temporarily forced me to conform to the attire of my peers – in other words, to dress like a child laboring in a Maoist reeducation camp.

In Junior High, something changed. My parents had finally managed to figure out which thrift stores in town were happening, we had all somewhat overcome the trauma of our relocation, and I was starting to formulate my own opinions about what I should wear.

One day, I decided to wear my Sunday clothes to school.

I didn’t get my ass kicked; in fact, several of the boys that used to punch me around for fun exclaimed “Hey, cool clothes, man!” But even more importantly, several of the pretty girls who had ignored me before now said “Hi.” To a thirteen-year-old, this is like your first hit of crack.

Shortly after this, there was a school assembly, at which some of my classmates performed a cover of “Godzilla” by Blue Öyster Cult. They played the opening riff over and over without a bridge, and there didn’t appear to be any vocals. At the time I was singing lead in my church choir, but I didn’t put two and two together. It didn’t occur to me to go up to the nascent musicians and say “What you guys need up there is a front man” – I was still too blown away by the fact that they had somehow got the school authorities to let them play at an assembly, and they hadn’t even learned the bridge. I didn’t know it then, but one of the guitar players would end up in my band.

What they had planted in my mind was the seed of possibility – it was possible for someone my age to get up in front of people and play loud rock music, to somehow sneak behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain and mess with the special effects. What caused that seed to germinate, however, was punk rock. Specifically, the Ramones.

Up until that point the majority of the kids I knew had been cowed by the specter of “musicianship” – everybody was into groups like Rush or Yes that played millions and millions of notes, and had huge multimillion-dollar light shows; it seemed that being in a rock and roll band was as unattainable a fantasy as being a grownup, having your own place, driving a car, getting laid, getting a job. When my brother, his best friend and I discovered the Ramones, we were immediately overcome by the realization that not only could losers like us be in a band – losers like us could be rockstars.

Many years later I would learn that the business associates who called themselves the Ramones and their management very carefully crafted their sound and image concept, but at the time everyone was convinced that they were what they appeared to be: A bunch of hooligans who had probably stolen their instruments, could barely play them, very likely slept in the beer and weed scented garage they rehearsed in, and wrote their songs about sniffing glue and turning tricks on 53rd and 3rd from personal experience.

We’d heard about the “punk rock” that, the newspapers claimed, had been invented somewhere in England and was the purview of Satanists, neo-Nazis and child-rapists; that it consisted of screams and grunts and curses over the atonal bashing of cheap musical instruments; and that punk rockers all had purple lipstick and safety pins through their nostrils. However, the Ramones gave the lie to the squalid hysteria flooding the late 70’s newspapers and television news reports of mainstream America. We knew guys like these Ramones, who skipped class, smoked reefer and sniffed glue, wore motorcycle jackets (some even rode motorcycles), had long greasy hair, set things on fire, liked loud obnoxious music and didn’t give a fuck about anything. They weren’t anything all that exotic; they were already fixtures of our environment. The music they represented had already existed for a long time, but had been so fiercely and religiously ignored by the mainstream that most people imagined it had sprung wholly and instantaneously from Malcolm MacLaren’s forehead.

What very studiously conceived pop art constructs such as the Ramones did was to bring the punk ethos into the consciousness of people like me who would take it to the next level. Not long after the arrival of the Ramones’ first album in 1976, an explosion of bands around the world would revive and revolutionize popular music in a manner that had not happened since the Beatles captured the airwaves over a decade before, spawning ten thousand imitators and arguably recapturing the mystical and anarchic power of rock and roll that had been unleashed by Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and their peers, but had been subsumed by a popular recording industry intent upon rendering rock and roll into a safe, asexual, white-skinned cash cow that wouldn’t frighten aunt Mildred or disturb the neighbors.

After the Beatles, the cycle began again, but the sine wave of revolution and co-optation became shorter and shorter. Thus, we have 4 years between The Day the Music Died (the fateful plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper) and the Beatles’ conquest of American radio with the single “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, the first salvo of the British Invasion; a mere 3 years between Iggy meeting Bowie at Max’s Kansas City in ’71 and the Ramones’ first performance at that same venue in ’74; and between the “death of punk” at the Sex Pistols’ disastrous performance at Winterland in San Francisco in ’78 and the release of “Gangsters” by the Specials on Jerry Dammer’s 2 Tone label, just one year.

We were inspired by the Ramones, but we sure as hell didn’t want to look like them. My inspiration for how to look came instead from the album cover of “Exposure”, the enigmatic and problematic solo release of former prog-rock axeman Robert Fripp. On that cover he was photographed in a dapper, almost conservative blazer, dress shirt and tie, his hair cropped short in Roman fashion. But what really turned all of our heads around 180 degrees was the release that same year of the film “Quadrophenia”, and the appearance at Rasputin’s Records on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley of loosely shrink-wrapped import copies of “In The City” by the Jam.

My friends and I were completely unaware that revival cults of 60’s Mod culture already existed among bored, disaffected former-punk rockers in San Francisco, San Diego, LA, New York, Boston, and several other major American cities; Berkeley had a funny way of being a cultural backwater in those days before the internet made the exchange of information functionally instantaneous. As far as we knew, we were it. In fact, finding out later on that other people were into it kind of spoiled it for us. In the heat of that moment in 1979, when we decided that we were Mods, the feeling that we had finally discovered our revolutionary stylistic niche was undeniable.

Surfing this wave of momentum, rehearsals in my parents’ garage began in earnest. Our hair was all wrong and our outfits were drastically misconceived (there were floral print Vans present, lamentably, for which certain members to this day refuse any apology; I however am fully repentant of my very brief interest in white painter’s pants). But we were playing Who and Ramones covers loud and fast, actually writing stupid three-chord songs that sounded like a cross between the two, and nothing was going to stand in the way of our inevitable world conquest. Expectations and strategies would later have to be amended in the face of brutal reality, but in that incandescent moment, we were far more sure of ourselves than we had any right to be.

This was even better than wearing one’s Sunday clothes to school; this was like making every day Sunday, without the annoying inconvenience of actually having to show up at church and have one’s cheek pinched by the old ladies.

At some point we managed to get hold of a copy of Richard Barnes’ notorious photo essay on mods (Mods!, orig. Eel Pie Publishing, 1979) and from that point onward it was an obsession. When I paid a visit to the guitar player from the band I’d seen at the school assembly back in junior high, intending to recruit him for my project, he had already acquired a dapper pinstriped mohair blazer with a “Maximum R&B” badge. He brought with him a rhythm guitar player who looked like he might have stepped off of a Yardbirds or Small Faces album cover from twenty years previous. A keyboard player I had taken many classes with in school, an unassuming yet bright fellow who had never particularly stuck out much in spite of his freakish tallness, suddenly appeared in a raw silk blazer and inch wide tie.

It seemed as if something was in the air. My horn-playing friends from church youth group, who played in the jazz bands of their respective schools, may have been skeptical about the Who, the Jam, mods, or any rock and roll influences; but they came to us enthusiastically by way of the Specials and their updated suedehead attire. While other bands at school made their statement by ripping the collars out of their T-shirts, we actually had the school GQ pimps calling us out as fellow stylists.

When kids from the suburbs started coming to our shows dressed in off-the-rack mallrat versions of our meticulously crafted looks, we became disillusioned, but then at that point the whole musical direction of the band had spun out on a thousand different tangents anyway. When what we had envisioned initially as a way to stand out from the pack became just another flavor of running with it, we more or less abandoned it. To our chagrin, however, we found ourselves continually pigeonholed, labeled, categorized, and genre-fied in the local press, who seemed hip to where we had been two or three years previously but not in the present.

One local rock journalist of considerable pedigree went so far as to send his son (actually one of our schoolmates) in his place to see us play and report back to him, effectively ghost-writing the review. In a strange sort of way our attempt at grabbing visibility for ourselves rendered us even more invisible than ever – when one becomes the subject of projection, there isn’t even an original subject to ignore any longer.

Fast forward about 20 years, across a gulf of time in which I’d attempted to start seemingly endless bands, or else audition for others; a time during which my “look” became nondescript, my songwriting even more so, and no one who had been witness to my original 15 minutes was anywhere in sight. I had done such an excellent job of erasing myself from my past life that I couldn’t cash a check to the old account – hell, I couldn’t get arrested anywhere. Not only was I light years away from the concept of wearing my Sunday clothes 7 days a week – I didn’t HAVE any Sunday clothes. I had done such a good job of caving inward upon myself that one friend remarked, “Don’t you go and start trying to live your life like a character in a Tom Waits song.” In fact, that was pretty much exactly what I was trying to do.

It simply did not look good.

Then around about 2006 the mood changed for me again. I was noticing that the old styles of music and clothing were coming back into fashion – not that I really cared, it was just sort of interesting, and jogged my memory about some things – and that it wasn’t that hard to find the kind of clothes I used to wear at my nearest local thrift shop. I got my hair cut short, started matching solid color dress shirts to narrow silk ties and four-button jackets, or knit polo shirts to vintage windbreakers. I vowed to absolutely eliminate all pleated pants and baggy jeans forever from my wardrobe, and breathed a sigh of sweet relief. I found myself recalling what I had somehow managed to forget – that dressing a certain way made me feel good, and feeling good was for me a full time job that required full time effort.

Concurrently with my return to a sense of personal dignity, my creativity exploded; I wrote and recorded more music in the space of a couple months than I had in the previous decade; and, as you can see here, the words flowed forth in a shameless cascade, where once I had hidden them under a rock.

For the most part I continue to set myself apart from the mainstream of any subculture, but I no longer shy away from the subtle “secret handshakes” as I call them, or as a fellow Stylist from back in the day refers to them, “a wink of mod”. Meanwhile the young people seem to at last be re-awakening from their long and terrible slumber in the realm of ridiculously baggy clothing – although I still see kids wearing hideous knee-length basketball shorts with sneakers resembling clown shoes. I no longer harbor any hard feelings to inhabitants of the mall culture who may borrow a grace note here or there from mine; after all, imitation is a relatively sincere form of flattery.

I frequently find myself biting my tongue, wanting to walk up to a 19 year old and say “The jacket and pants are great, but what were you thinking with those shoes?” or “Next time let me cut your hair – I could have done a better job than the overpriced idiot who did that to you.” But then I remember what I would have said at 19 if some 43 year old weirdo had come up to me talking such garbage. Instead, I keep quiet and try to teach by example. And encouragingly, dear old friends from high school who might easily be saying “Come on, grow up, you’re not a teenage rockstar any more,” are instead exclaiming “Where have you been!”

DIARY OF A FADING ROCKSTAR Episode III: The Pros and Cons of Time Travel

August 4, 2009

Written By: Erik Rader

This is probably going to turn out to be an embarrassing admission, but here goes nothing: About two years ago I started dressing like I did in high school. Last year I did some digital remixes of songs I wrote back then on my Macbook, some of which I uploaded to MySpace. And this year, I’ve downloaded a lot of the music I used to listen to back then, my own personal soundtrack I used to listen to on my Sony Cassette Walkman, now in a tenuous sort of existence as 1’s and 0’s. It seems more than coincidental that I’ve also recently begun to reconnect with old friends from that time in my life, either digitally, in person, or both. This is a common theme for people about my age, albeit amplified by our new total-access culture; what hasn’t changed is that not only do most of us find it embarrassing, pathetic, or both – it’s also usually a big mistake.

William Faulkner is purported to have said, “The past isn’t dead – it isn’t even the past.” Faulkner’s own mortality aside, this becomes even more true when information about the past is so much more easily resurrected than before. I’m sure we’ll eventually be able to reconstruct Faulkner from his existing DNA and reboot all of his memories, something for which I doubt he’ll thank us.

It used to be that to do this you had to crawl up into a filthy attic, avoiding whatever sort of verminous species had taken up residence there, and dig out vinyl records, cassettes, photographs, letters, yearbooks, and old clothes from boxes. One had to sort through a physicality that both transported one to the realm of memory and yet left that memory safely dead. However, the way things are now, you have old flames from age 16 reconnecting via Facebook and ruining their current decades-old marriages; you have the school bully who used to terrorize you now asking you to “friend” him so you can buy insurance or buy into his new religion.

You might think, and I’m not sure I can convince you otherwise, that I’m acting like a certain type of middle-aged person you can run across pretty much anywhere – the guys no longer within a loud shout of their twenties, who spend way too much money on sunglasses and designer sneakers, who shave their heads at the first sign of male pattern baldness, who get super-badass tattoos on their forearms; the women who seem to think they can dress like a sixteen year old going to the mall and yet still retain their dignity. But how this turns out for you really depends on how you looked in high school in the first place. If you were never that kind of person, it’s kind of a little bit late to be starting now.

I acknowledge that I am rowing on troubled waters here, but I may be a special case. In high school, I was the lead singer in a band that went from local popularity to opening for major acts in stadiums, recording a record, and even appearing in Rolling Stone magazine, all in five short years. (This was before I quit for various reasons I won’t go into here, and spent the next 20 years trying to start band no. 2.)

Over the ensuing years I ran from that past as if my ass was on fire. I still liked the same music, I just didn’t play it any more, and wouldn’t for any amount of money; and as for looking the part, I made every effort to look like someone who wasn’t trying to look like anything. Unsurprisingly, I failed in this effort, merely succeeding in looking very uncomfortable most of the time. When I think about the clothes I wore all through my 30’s, I find myself wishing I could forget. It’s time for me to admit that most of the music I wrote during that time was an equally bad fit. I certainly didn’t succeed in getting very many other people interested in it – hell, maybe I wasn’t even that interested in it.

My daughter was born about two weeks after my 40th birthday, and her arrival snapped me out of a depression as wide and deep as the decades I had spent trying to redefine myself. Seeing the world through her eyes helped me to see something I’d been suspecting for a long time – that my 15 year old self knew a few things that 40 year old me had managed to forget. One of those things was that 15 year old me wasn’t afraid of being seen. The circumstances of life eventually beat that cocksureness out of me, but at the time I reveled in the fact that people could recognize me for my swagger from city blocks away. I remember one friend cryptically informing me, “I saw you the other day, walking down the street, all like a rockstar an’ shit.” I pestered that friend for an explanation, but didn’t get one. I think I can see now what that friend saw, looking back. I’m certain that it wasn’t arrogance, although people who didn’t know me would sometimes tell me that’s what they thought it was (people who did know me knew that I had pretty much the opposite problem). It was, I believe, a simple knowledge of self. I didn’t have to “find myself” (and I wasted a great deal of time on that particular search, entirely due to forgetting this fact) because I already knew who and what I wanted to be.

Unless I’m deceiving myself, this recent climbing back into my old skin has been a low-cost and relatively inoffensive way of clearing away a quarter-century fog, a kind of coming to my senses, a dragging myself back from the brink. If I am to credit positive external feedback, there must be some benefit in my decision to forego appearing as if I had slept under a bridge. For the time since I first left my home town – which, I reckon with a wince, is more than half my life ago – that was my fashion statement: “Will work for food.” I recall meeting with an agency recruiter who sighed deeply before gesturing at my clothes (which I had thought were pretty tight) and saying “So, Erik – what do you want to be when you grow up?” I guess I had lost my swagger.

By contrast, almost every job interview I’ve gone to in the past two years has started out with the contact person reassuring me “We’re really pretty casual around here.” At my current place of employment a customer recently asked me “So, do they make you dress this nice for work or…..?” I’m not sure what the “or” option is. I found that it took too long to explain, and so instead I came up with the stock answer: “It’s just my thing.”

We tend to reject the concept of “cool” as insincere, shallow, somehow morally beneath us – we who are, to be sure, such highly substantial and spiritually developed beings. I guess I have a different definition of cool than other people. To me, it was always directly traceable to the people who created the term – urban musicians, poets and artists of the African Diaspora – and their search for dignity in the face of adversity, of self-determination in the face of cultural genocide. It’s been watered down a lot since then, and I for one certainly cannot say that I have ever been the victim of cultural genocide, unless we all have been. But I can relate to the search for dignity in the face of adversity – or as one overly-quoted wag has said, “Clean living under difficult circumstances”.

And that is what I want to recapture: Not my youth, which is as gone as gone can be, but the attitude that one’s destiny is within one’s grasp, and that dignity cannot be found in conformity, but only in an outward thrust against it. I don’t think it’s wrong to want that swagger back, that cocksureness, the intention to go against the grain whenever possible. People get old when they allow the weight of the world to put a curvature in their spine; people stay young when they use that weight as a resistance machine. If you’re looking in the mirror when you get up in the morning and noticing that curvature, maybe it’s time for a little time travel.

Check Out The Other Articles In This Series:
Episode I
Episode II

DIARY OF A FADING ROCKSTAR – Episode II: The Doors of Self-Deception

July 27, 2009

Written By: Erik Rader

Every time I find myself watching Oliver Stone’s psychedelic hagiography of Jim Morrison (The Doors, 1991), in between fits of giggling at its sometimes stunning flights of pretentiousness (Who is the bald naked man on a white horse that only Jim sees? Why do the spirits of Indian Ghost Dancers appear on stage with him? How does he manage to pick up hot hippie chicks by intoning stoned Rimbaud-isms with glassy, unfocused eyes?) I am given pause to consider the narrative of my own life.

I used to have this Jungian shrink who explained that we lead singers, in playing out the role of Dionysus onstage, are trapped in a role of “Puer Aeturnus” or Eternal Childhood. Particularly those of us crossing over into the bleak, gray country known as Middle Age are often to be found poring over old demo tapes and dog-eared press packet photos, wondering what would have happened if we had “made it” back then.

Come on, you know this is you I’m talking about!

The pivotal, climactic moment of “The Doors” is not, however, the night they got signed by an Elektra Records executive who claims to have been “blown away” by a raucous, outrage-laden performance at LA’s venerable Whiskey night club (Jim, literally crawling the walls on acid, responds to the record company wonk’s pallid invitation with a typically mercurial “Why not?”) but rather the moment at which Jim crosses over into the Other Realm while performing, screams that he wants to fuck his mother (and pantomimes it pretty convincingly, complete with bestial grunts) and then is spontaneously “ridden by the gods” as they say in the ancient religion of the Yoruba people.

Val Kilmer quite convincingly channels Jim channeling the ancestors of the Native Americans who haunt his dreams, ostensibly because once as a child he saw one of them lying bloodied and mortally wounded on the roadside after a car accident. This formative experience, along with a seemingly bottomless appetite for ingesting peyote, inspires him to such impulsive gestures as jumping onto the hood of a car in the middle of midday traffic and shouting in a thunderous voice like Christ amongst the moneychangers: “Who among you is really alive??”

If you have ever been on a stage of any size for any reason, then you are familiar with the feeling to some degree. You remember, however fleetingly, an uncanny sensation of being plugged into something big, shaggy, horrid, wonderful, a primitive “collective soul” if you will. Sometimes The Big Shaggy reaches up onto the stage and tries to tear you apart a la Orpheus and the Bacchantae, or like the teenage girls in the front row who tore apart one of my favorite shirts, eliciting a stern emo-femboy lecture.

Then it leaves you, in the middle of a tour, in a rehearsal space hopelessly unable to produce lyrics that fit with your band’s sudden fascination with the musical stylings of Joe Walsh, or unwilling to acquire one more in a series of increasingly exotic percussion instruments to play with behind the increasingly lengthy solos. (Weren’t punk solos supposed to be limited to eight seconds? Hold on, I’ve got the Policies and Procedures Manual lying around here somewhere.) It leaves you – the Big Shaggy, the Voice in the Wind, the Shadows and Tall Trees, or Whatever It Was – and at barely the age of a college junior, your raison d’être has become one more pathetically over-recycled anecdote for the therapist’s couch, overwrought party conversation, or the blog.

As ridiculous and hackneyed as it may sound to the layman, even the most cynical post-rockist, indie hipster, intellectual, with a hatred of the conventional stronger than ten thousand espressos, will, in the deepest most shame-darkened chamber of his fetid heart, harbor at least a hemidemisemiquaver of resonance with the notion of rock musician as shaman. All it takes is one taste. One. One sip of Bill Graham’s New Year’s Moet Chandon, one sip from an ice cold can of Coke during sound check looking up into the light rig of a ten thousand seat amphitheater, one sip from the ruby lips of a braless teenager wearing your band’s T-shirt. One glance into a sea of darkness dimly illuminated by a galaxy of cigarette lighters. One toke from the proffered backstage spliff of a real-life honest-to-Jah Rastafarian shaman/musician who gives you the inimitably cool musician-to-musician microscopic nod as you walk offstage drenched in sweat from your opener to his headliner.

You start to believe your own mythology. That you were on the path to some kind of Destiny with a capital ‘D’. That for some unknowable reason the Universe intended this for you – this, rather than graduate school or the seminary or a job working for your mom or dad’s company. Or the Army. That in some deeply profound yet unprovable way, it was a critical part of the deep, mitochondrial blueprint of human history that you go this way instead of that way. And it’s the main reason you haven’t been able to hold down a real job since – oh hell, since the day you first tried to. The main reason you sleep alone on the couch most nights. The reason you lie awake far into the night making playlist after playlist for yourself. “This is the absolutely key combination of songs that made me want to write my own! No, this is!” And so on.

It doesn’t matter how many therapists, intervention committees, friends, relatives, or lovers tell us to get over it, let it go, move on, grow up – you still remember the seasoned (not to mention pickled) record producer who pulled you aside and said “Listen. I hear a lot of singers, many of whom are good. You, though, you’re the real thing. You have something that most people will try a whole lifetime to find but never do. Don’t waste it.”

And then you wonder if you have it in you to write one more handful of songs, place one more “MUSICIANS WANTED” ad (and trust me, it’s easier to write a heroic epic backwards and upside down than it is to write a good ad), in between your job that doesn’t pay enough to feed your family and your soul-crushing search for one that does. You wonder if you can stand the rejection, the indifference, the brush-offs, the ridicule, the flakiness, the misinterpretation, the ones who not only want to pledge their allegiance to the band for life but want to be your best friend but oh dear god they play horribly, sing worse, write complete garbage and their rehearsal space in the self-storage facility smells like…like…like someone went in one night and never came out. And are you next??

Some people refer to it as High School Quarterback Syndrome. Homecoming weekend senior year….that incredible touchdown….making it with the homecoming queen….and a Summer that felt like it would never end….and part of you thinks that if you cling to it hard enough, it didn’t, it won’t. Like when you were a kid, and had a dream about the most fantastic, beautiful, magical toy ever imagined; you grabbed the toy just before waking up and clutched it so tight your hands bled, saying to yourself “This time I’ll bring it with me!” And yet once again when you wake up your hands are empty.

Stop telling yourself to get over it, let it go, move on, grow up. Rather, embrace it and hold it close up against your heart, the pain, like a stone you found on the side of a mountain – this knowledge that you will always want something you will never have. And then make something new that you didn’t even know you wanted. And tell the Universe where it can stick its destiny. You’re going to create your own. And the naked bald guy – whoever the hell he is – can fuck off on the white horse he rode in on.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erik Rader was, like, this close to being a totally famous rockstar in the mid-1980’s. He and his family live in Seattle, with more almost-famous people per capita than any other city besides Los Angeles.

Check Out The Other Articles In This Series:
Episode I
Episode III

DIARY OF A FADING ROCKSTAR: Episode I: What It Is, and What It Was

July 25, 2009

Written By: Erik Rader

In the surreal landscape of high school, even the most alienated soul was privy to a local network of profound, if obscure, communitarian sensibility, a sort of ad-hoc anarchist playground where society was reduced to an abstract microcosm. one heard by word of mouth that certain people were musicians, and that they were good; it wasnʼt hard to find them, as someone inevitably had a class with them, particularly jazz band. Oneʼs word of mouth network was all the network one needed to find experts at anything – home manufacture of designer drugs, for example, or cultivated contraband; or someone who could draw a poster, or silkscreen a logo on a trenchcoat, or who could acquire firearms or explosives or other devices of terror; or someone who might have a guitar or drum kit for sale, or who might be interested in playing bass.

All it took was an exchange of phone numbers on scraps of paper, a saturday afternoon in common, which was universal, since no one had a job [well, the bass player, the elder statesman, had a job; but he showed up for rehearsal anyway]. all it took was the mere suggestion and somehow will and energy coalesced, because the landscape was devoid of imminent responsibility or entertainment. none of us were anxiously preparing for the next meeting of the model UN, or as a favorite chemistry teacher so biliously put it, “going to discover the next element.” we had time, and we had the inclination of “why not?”, and we had living rooms.

How did one write a song? one thought of a melody, imagined accompaniment, wrote down lyrics – a song was born. how did one lead a band? one demonstrated the arrangement – how difficult could it be? “It goes like this – then it goes like this – then it goes like this.” How did one promote oneʼs band? With a logo and a sharpie pen and a tile wall in a high school corridor. with a xerox machine and a staple gun and yards of plywood fenced construction site. how did one get bookings? One called up club owners, got hung up on, called again, got hung up on, and called again. One told stories of hundreds of kids turning out in the high school courtyard, of benefit concerts, of parties. One somehow landed a Wednesday night opener. All of oneʼs schoolmates
showed up. Soon enough, the Wednesday night opener became a Friday night headliner.

Before there were managers and booking agents and road managers and label executives and entertainment lawyers and professional photographers and producers and engineers and caterers and lighting and sound technicians and roadies and guitar and drum techs…there were some people, and some songs, and some instruments, and a living room, and a name. Before all of the dross, before the muddled album cover designs and the unattractive T-shirts, before the effects pedals, before the solos that were longer than the verses, before the bragging about the previous nightʼs groupie sex, before the showing up late to the gig high as a kite, before the rehearsals broken up by near-fistfights, before the sudden unannounced firings of band members, before the rifts in the dream, there was the dream itself: where a consolidation of creative wills came together in an atmosphere of naivete and positivity, where nothing was ever reduced to the practical, much less the profitable; where any gig was a good gig; where even an
audience of one was a triumph; where the joy and excitement of listening to ourselves
play was enough motivation.

There was a time when it was enough to notice someone elseʼs clothes to know they were of a like mind, one could broach a conversation about bands, then in three swift moves have recruited a fellow musician for a project. there were no day planners and no day jobs, no palm pilots or palm greasing, there were no contracts, there were no riders, there were no hourly rates. There was a time when one was willing to enter into any opportunity to actually play music, before the tendency arose to find any and every practical excuse why it must be an untenable and unprofitable excursion.

There was a time when people would get into a dirty white chevy van and risk life and limb to drive to some college town, raid their student council entertainment fund for cash and liquor, and blow peopleʼs minds. There was a time when one was on nothing other than a fanatical
quest to blow peopleʼs minds, and nothing would stand in oneʼs way. Not to entertain, but to blow their minds. before there was american idol, before there was MTV, before there was “bling bling”, before anyone even cared about a record contract – there was a time when no mental obstacles separated one from direct expression to oneʼs constituency – to oneʼs peers.

You went out and you made things happen because nobody told you that you couldnʼt, and when they did tell you that you couldnʼt you said, “Fuck you anyway” and moved on. You didnʼt pay to play, you “rocked the party.” You didnʼt say “Cʼmon, everybody, put your hands together!”, you screamed “Iʼm an antichrist!” or “Nazi punks fuck off!”

Before there was alternative this or indy that, before there was a scene or scenes, before DJʼs, before the booking agent you had to know personally to get a gig, before “buzz”, you created everything, because you had no fear, because you had no hope. You did it because you were unruly and untamed. You did it because no one could stop you; not your parents, not your family, not your congregation, not your teachers, not the police, not the guidance counselor who wanted you to go to college, not the fucking losers at your school who thought they were greek gods but in reality were merely trolls.

You didnʼt “break in” to anything, you stood your ground and blasted, and you let them all come to you. you didnʼt do market research, you didnʼt have “visioning” meetings, you didnʼt read Variety or CMJ. You showed up to school in fashions you made yourself, you had music in your head you made yourself, everything about you was made yourself, not bought in a store or bought from anywhere. You were the creator of your own memetic universe, your own total reality map. You cultivated obscurantism. You cultivated eccentricity. you werenʼt afraid of being divested of your livelihood because you didnʼt have one – you had nothing, no freedom, no capital, no assets. All you had was your attitude and your rage, and you funneled it all into a total assault on the reality proscribed and prescribed by your inferiors, the people who lived in fear of a vision of anything beyond what had been proscribed and prescribed for them. you spit on them
and climbed over their sorry asses. you shook the dust off of your sandals. you were the judgement of Armageddon time upon the heads of the boring. You were righteous. You were fifteen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erik Rader was, like, this close to becoming a famous rockstar in the mid-1980ʼs. He lives with his family in Seattle, where there are more almost-famous people per capita than any other city besides Los Angeles.

Check Out The Other Articles In This Series:
Episode II
Episode III

Erik Rader

June 16, 2008

Position: Contributing Writer (Features)

Location:
Seattle, WA

Bio: Singer/songwriter since 1981, married since 1993, dad since 2005. Recent experiments in instrumental/soundtrack music under the name Pyrolysis.

Likes: Who, Small Faces, Jam, Guided By Voices, Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Spoon

Columns At CWG: The Features

Twitter: Twitter.com/erikr

Facebook: Facebook.com/home.php?#/profile.php?id=516127777&ref=profile